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Sylvie Courvoisier - Abaton

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Artist: Sylvie Courvoisier

Album: Abaton

Label: ECM

Review date: Dec. 8, 2003

When drummer Susie Ibarra became the subject of a New York Times expose, some of her peers in the New York creative music community cried foul. Their oft whispered argument was that Ibarra was chosen more her gender than for her relative talent or stature in the scene. The claim caused quite a rift, and in hindsight seems horribly misguided. True, jazz and improvised music in general is a largely patriarchal playing field. Women who cultivate instruments other than voice can have a tough time when it comes to being taken seriously. The lamentable standard seems to be crumbling, albeit slowly. Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier is quite obviously a woman, but in the context of her recordings and music, she is more prominently a musician. Gender is important, not as a dividing line, but as a source of identity and inspiration. Common sense dictates that aesthetic consideration of a person’s music should come before any armchair hypothesizing on the relevance of their sex.

Abaton is an ambitious undertaking. Two discs, one focusing on four lengthy composed pieces, the other exploring 19 shorter improvising vehicles, comprise the set. Aiding Courvoisier in the endeavor are violinist Mark Feldman and cellist Erik Friedlander, both of whom have sterling resumes in creative music. The ascetic aspects of the ECM sound fit the music immaculately. Rendered through pristine studio acoustics, the trio’s wide dynamics achieve an immediate impact. As if portending the gravity to come, “Ianicum” opens with a few fleeting seconds of silence. Courvoisier deploys sparse darkly struck notes, soon echoed harmonically by the strings. The mood is somber and methodical with Feldman and Friedlander fusing through sustained arco tones, some of which echo the sounds of breathy voiced wind instruments. Space and the absence of sound play dominant roles. The three instruments frequently sound as if they’re operating in cosmically cavernous surroundings. Tension increases through the juxtaposition of skeletal recurring motives. Violin and cello at times operate at the edges of audibility only to strike without warning with stentorian sharpness. Sudden spates of thunder-clapping dissonance at once jolt and beguile, as do the strings’ errant switch to pitch-ricocheting pizzicato.

These elements are even more starkly evident on “Orodruin”, where the trio jumpcuts through a choppy succession of silences and outbursts. Feldman’s delicately oscillating statement two-thirds into the piece spreads a balm of lyrical salve over the earlier severity. It’s a respite short-lived as aggressive interplay returns for the denouement. Friedlander serves a similar purpose on the title track, his cello’s warm, richly resonating solo contrasting with the menacing demeanor of much of the music. “Poco a Poco” operates sans piano, scored only for the strings. Feldman and Friedlander glide and weave at variable speeds, stitching a lattice of skewed lines laced with rhythmic and harmonic grace. Bows defer briefly to fingers, but the emphasis is on blatant arco virtuosity.

The strings’ near hermetic rapport is an instant asset for Courvoisier on the second disc of improvisations. Fleeting in durations, the longest is just under four minutes and most are under three, these miniatures cycle by quickly and require split-second communication between the musicians. Little room exists for lengthy extemporization as most are precise and to the point out of simple necessity. The titles reflect a fascination with imaginary and fantastical locales and an analogous dream-like quality suffuses many of them. Courvoisier joins her colleagues’ propensity for extended techniques. She manipulates her hammered strings, dampening them here, plucking them there. The result is an even more voluminous sketchbook of sounds, moods and architectures than on the composed portion of the program. The two together create a complimentary, yet contrasting whole that refuses to yield the sum of its secrets even after numerous visitations. If this set is any harbinger, Courvoisier has a long and prosperous career still ahead of her.

By Derek Taylor

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